Belfast side aiming to break dominance of big five

Ivan Steen, Harlequins
Ivan Steen, Harlequins

Belfast Harlequins are aiming the break the stranglehold that Ulster’s top five teams have had on qualification to the Irish Hockey League since its inception six years ago.

Lisnagarvey, Banbridge, Cookstown, Instonians and Annadale have taken it as read that they will be playing IHL hockey every season, but things could just be about to change this season.

Bangor's Richard McMillan

Bangor's Richard McMillan

Harlequins had a great start to their league campaign, beating Civil Service in the opening game. But losing their top goal scorer, Luke McClelland was a blow for the club.

However, McClelland has just returned and his timing is a massive shot in the arm for Harlequins.

With three games in hand over Annadale, who are currently in fifth place, Harlequins really fancy their chances of taking the fifth spot and getting into the IHL next season, where they will play against some of Ireland top clubs.

And with a home game against Annadale next week, an upset could well be on the cards.

Harlequins only earned promotion to the premier league back in 2011. That promotion has acted as the catalyst for development and growth ever since, as they concentrate at staying in the top flight, which has always been their priority.

The junior side of the club has grown, with the seconds now playing in Junior 1 and this year they recently added a 4th XI team, so things are really booming at the Deramore Park club.

They recently dug up the sand based pitch and laid a new pitch, which has been a massive help to their development this season.

The last few years have of course been tough in the top flight, but the squad have worked hard and continue to learn and progress.

This year several new faces joined the Deramore set up - Ivan Steen (Cookstown), Adam Louden (Instonians), Richard McMillan (Bangor) and a new 1st XI keeper Luke Campbell from Lisnagarvey.

Former Irish International Ivan Steen’s arrival was a massive coup for the club, as his Premiership experience has been great to have on board this year and others in the squad have been learning from him.

But it is not only the new arrivals that have taken the club to where they are today. Credit must also go Harlequins hardened stalwarts -Robin Quigley, Andrew Smythe, Chris Lemon, Iain Kelly, John Metcalfe and Karl Patterson, who have been with the Club from the start of its journey.

The team now have an opportunity to take another huge step forward, by qualifying for next years’ IHL.

However, it is under the guidance of their coach, Jonny Caren, who has had the vision that the club could one day play in the IHL and that day could be just around the corner.

Caren was a former Methody schoolboy, so has a long association with the club. He moved to Australia for ten years, where he developed his coaching skills and coached state level at New South Wales before returning home

Caren is one of the most promising coaches in Irish hockey and he is also the Irish Under 21 coach. He is having a really busy week, as Ireland are playing in this week’s 4-Nation tournament at Mossley, and he knows that the next few weeks are crucial and could be history making for the Deramore Park Club.

He said: “Its been great to the see new lads coming in, the attitude of the squad this season has been fantastic and the dynamics we have in the squad are first rate.

“We have five games left that we know are going to be tough, but we are looking forward to the challenge.

“We want to be a top club in Ulster and Ireland and we know that won’t happen overnight. Our run in starts with Annadale and it’s a game we need to win.”

But it’s not only Annadale that Harlequins have to worry about, they have a crunch game against Mossley, who also have hankerings of qualifying to the IHL.

Mossley are on the same points as Harlequins but have played one more game. They also have to play Lisnagarvey who are in a title contest against Banbridge, so they will not be holding back as they go in search for points and goals.

Mossley’s remaining games are against Cookstown and Raphoe. Raphoe will be looking to avoid the automatic relegation slot, so points could be difficult to find in that one.

Kilkeel also could have their eyes on the IHL target, as they are also tied on thirteen points with Harlequins and Mossley but with one less game than Harlequins.

However, Kilkeel look to have the more difficult run in, as they have to play the title chasers – Lisnagarvey away and Banbridge at home and both sides will be out to rattle as many goals home as they can.

They also have to play Civil Service and Service are hoping to avoid the automatic drop back to Senior One, so that won’t be an easy one either.

This has been one of the tightest season’s for a long time. The title is finely balanced and could go either way between Garvey and Bann. And the relegation battle isn’t over just yet either, as Raphoe and Service hope to avoid the automatic drop.

But it’s fifth place that for once is not the foregone conclusion it normally is. The pendulum has swung in Harlequins favour, but it could so easily swing to one of the other three clubs still in the hunt.

Isn’t this what sport is all about….going to the wire!